Desmond Chapin opened his door to a spare, plainly dressed woman of about forty, nose tilted, reddish hair in a strict bun. “Miss . . .”

“Valerie Gordon,” she said.

“The new nanny.”

“Well . . . If we all suit each other.” She had a faint Canadian accent.

“You remind me of somebody,” Desmond said, escorting her into the living room. When Val did not respond, he plunged on anyway. “Mary Poppins?”

She shook her head. “I’m not like Mary Poppins. I’m sometimes fanciful, but I don’t work magic. I like courtesy, but I don’t care about manners.”

This was Val’s first interview in the nanny line and she considered it a rehearsal. She had no references other than clerical. After shaking hands with Deborah Chapin, she said hello to the four-year-old twin boys. They grinned and giggled.

“I have a special rapport with twins,” she dared to say to the boys. “You see, I am . . .

But they were already running out to play in the fenced-in backyard.

Desmond asked why she was leaving office work. Too repetitive, after twenty-odd years, she told him—too penitential. Yes, she could manage simple housekeeping; yes, prepare simple dinners on occasion; yes, mending. “Simple mending,” she clarified.

Deborah wrote down the names of Val’s references, office managers all.

Desmond said: “I am puzzling the difference between courtesy and manners.”

“Oh . . . one is innate, the other learned.”

Val left the rehearsal. She guessed that Deborah had been writing with invisible ink. But the next day a telephone offer came—“though we would be even happier,” Deborah said, “if you’d live with us, and the salary would be the same. Would you reconsider?”

“I won’t live in, sorry.”

Sigh. “We want you anyway.”

Val’s new career began.

The Chapins gave her a car with two child boosters and told her she should consider it hers. She used it sometimes, though most of her outings with the boys were by bus, trolley, or subway, or on foot. And since her flat didn’t have a parking space she kept the car at the Chapins’ and walked back and forth to work. If the Chapins asked her to babysit at night, she left without escort at the end of the evening, ignoring Desmond’s doomsaying. “I know this is safe old Godolphin, the most dangerous things here are the oak-leaf skeletonizers, still,
Val . . . it would take just a minute to drive you.” But each time she said no, strode down the path, turned her head at the gate, and gave him an impish smile perfected long ago. He probably couldn’t see it. She tramped home without mishap.

She stayed with the Chapins for five years, until they went bankrupt. She would have stayed longer—the twins loved her, she always knew which was which, she had a nest egg and could go without pay for a while—but no, it would add to his humiliation, Desmond said; and anyway they were going to move out of town.

The Chapins introduced Val to the Greens and their three little girls. The Greens hired her instantly, although they were disappointed that she wouldn’t occupy their attic retreat. But Val still wouldn’t leave her basement flat. In winter she appreciated the warmth of the nearby furnace, in summer the cool of the half-submerged rooms. Meager sunlight slipped like an envelope into one after another of her high windows and then lay on the floor as if waiting to be picked up. Solitude, silence . . . living in would subject her to constant voices and movements, bothersome even in a courteous family, worse still among the irrepressible kin she’d grown up with.

She spent several contented years as the Greens’ nanny. But then their work took them to Washington.

Sitting with Val at the kitchen table, Bunny Green said: “Think about coming with us. The capital . . .”

“No, but thank you.”

Bunny sighed. “You are a gem. I wish you had a twin.”

Val looked at her lap.

“One of my friends is pregnant again,” Bunny said, “and that scattered family around the corner needs a nanny, though they don’t know it yet. Your telephone will be ringing off the hook.”

Not quite. She did get some offers as she met one family after another. But no situation would do. One house was located on the edge of Godolphin where it met a western suburb—she’d have to take two buses to get there. Another family had piled lessons and activities on their four children—Val would become a chauffeur. A third had an ill child who needed constant attention. The burdened mother’s eyes silently pleaded. But Val said firmly, “I’m sorry, but I’ve found I am unsuited to such work.”

So she took a temporary job—a couple with a three-year-old was staying in Godolphin for the summer. She’d start searching again in the fall, though without confidence. The Chapin and Green references counted in her favor, but her manner probably worked against her—that hint of the governess that Desmond Chapin had spotted was out of fashion. And by now either her color or her age made her a misfit on the playgrounds. Beautiful women from Uganda and Burkina Faso, thin and smooth enough to be teenagers, tried to include her as they watched their charges from benches, but they soon lapsed into their dialect, or French, and their kids didn’t approach Val’s shy three-year-old. British au pairs avoided her as if she were a headmistress. Scandinavians smiled at her as if she were a pet. The mommies—there were some of those, too, unmannerly—ignored her entirely: they were too busy boasting about their children as if someday they meant to sell them.

She missed the Greens. By the time they had decamped, their girls did not need supervision at the park or anywhere else—they needed only dinners when their parents were out and occasional reminders about homework. But they craved her company, especially at bedtime. They wanted to hear the tales that Val had concocted with them when they were younger. Case Histories of Ethical Dilemmas, Val called her stories. The girls called them Vallies. They took place in vaguely medieval cities. Royalty lived at a distance, and there was no romantic love and no hidden treasure; but there was sometimes casual enchantment and once in a while a quest. In one Vallie a girl’s ailing mother was partial to caterpillar sandwiches: Was the daughter obliged to prepare the meal? And then share it? In another, a six-year-old boy wanted to watch a beheading—the penalty in Vallieland for sanctimony. Was he too young to see gore or would he become enlightened, and someday join the campaign against capital punishment? After a greedy squire was transformed into an ox, should he be put to the plow, or was change of identity punishment enough?

Yes, she missed the Greens. She wondered what they were doing this Monday morning . . . had they made friends in Washington? She still missed the Chapin twins, who must be almost in high school. She missed the three-year-old now back in California. But mooning over losses, regretting a child no longer in sight . . . that never got her anywhere. It was nine o’clock and she’d better hurry. She had an interview at ten.

The entire family was present at the interviewing—the parents and their two daughters and their son. Nine, seven, five. The father taught at the local university—a form of mathematics, he grudgingly revealed. “Topology.” He had a strawberry mark on his left cheek, no more disfiguring than a stripe on a shirt. The mother was petite, almost child-sized herself, with colorless messy hair and a long elfin nose. “I don’t work,” she said. “I don’t work yet,” she corrected. “I’m looking for a craft.” The children were quiet and appeared healthy, though the boy—the youngest—was too thin, and did not meet her eyes. “Your references,” Professor Duprey said tonelessly, “are impeccable.” Their shabby townhouse was located on the Boston end of Godolphin, a short walk from Val’s apartment.

But with the Dupreys it was a condition of employment that she live in.

How flexible her principles had become. This family had no gaiety and she guessed they hadn’t much small talk, either. Silence and solitude might still be hers. And Godolphin had become less safe at night, at least for a woman walking alone. A developer had recently bought her apartment house and might turn it into condominiums.

She followed Professor Duprey down a perilous staircase. The others trooped after them. They entered a group of rooms which resembled her own, even to the tiny high windows. Light would slot itself downward in the same impersonal way.

“Yes,” said Val. “But I have a lease,” she remembered.

“There’ll be a penalty for breaking it. We’ll pay,” said the professor. “You’ll have Thursdays and Sundays off, twenty-four hours each.”

A civilized form of servitude, then. But she had never indulged in much of a social life since leaving home—an occasional afternoon movie with one of her few friends.

“It isn’t that we go out much, Miss Gordon,” said the wife. First names would probably not be the rule here.

“They don’t go out at all,” said Win, the nine-year-old.

“But the household requires another adult,” said the professor.

“If God had wanted people to have three children—” began Mrs. Duprey.

“—he would have created a third parent,” finished young Liam, and this time he did look at Val.

And if Val had wanted to live in a houseful of adults and kids and bugs (the Dupreys’ screens needed patching) she might never have left her own noisy family in their ramshackle Toronto house, where no one had a room to herself; she could have watched the generations replace themselves; she could have made up Vallies for whatever children were around. What she wanted, she had discovered at twenty, was a life alone, with a family at fingertip distance. And she’d gotten that for a while, hadn’t she, with the Chapins and the Greens and that little girl this summer . . . She swatted a mosquito. Besides insects flying in through the screens, there were beetles making free with her kitchen as well as with the one above it—Theirs. First names were to be avoided, so she thought of her employers as pronouns. He, She, They. The pair of Them.

He was tall and ill-kempt. She was a child herself. She burned the meals or left them half cooked, sewed buttons on the wrong garments (“You’ll start a new style,” Val comforted Fay, the second daughter, who was dismayed at a cardigan adorned with toggles). And She started projects and then abandoned them, didn’t care that insects ruled the household. She was at ease only with the children and, gradually, with Val.

There was no heat between the pair of Them. No anger, no resentment, no merriment. They might have been brother and sister forced to live in reduced circumstances in order to bring up younger siblings. As for the three siblings, undemanding and obedient, they quickly attached themselves to Val, but shared her as scrupulously as if they’d made a compact.

The girls walked themselves to school. Val escorted Liam, who spent his mornings at a different school. She stood quietly when he stopped to stare at things. At an irregular stone wall held together not by mortar but by the stone layer’s skilled placement of rocks. At the buds, half-opened petals, full blooms, and spent ovals of a hibiscus. He remarked on the progress of one form to another day by day. He squatted to examine deposits of dogs. “This dog’s owner is not doing his share,” Val remarked. “He should follow his pet with a pooper-scooper.”

“Then we would not get to see the dog’s shit,” said the child, “and imagine the circumstances of his insides.” His utterances were few and precise. She supposed he was some sort of genius. They were all precocious—even the incompetent Mrs. Duprey seemed like an overbright twelve-year-old.

The nearby playground had whimsical sculpture. Liam often clumsily climbed a stone turtle and occupied himself in counting something, molecules of air, probably. Val sat on a bench, ignored by the usual collection of adults. They went there many times that fall. For lunch he ate a single carrot stick and half a cheese sandwich. She wondered how he’d take to caterpillars.

At home Val encouraged the children to make their beds in the morning; she encouraged Mrs. Duprey to straighten the marital bed and to dust and sweep once in a while. Val herself ran the vacuum cleaner over carpets whose pattern had been lost decades ago. And eventually it was Val who shopped for groceries, cooked the meals, called the exterminator, had the back stairs repaired, remembered to leave the money on the oversize dining table for the weekly cleaning woman (cash was kept loose in a kitchen drawer, available to everyone; Val paid herself out of it). That giant dining table had probably come with the house. The wicker living room furniture, no cushions matching—it had probably come from Goodwill.

One Saturday in December she suggested a trip to a large discount shop to buy new school clothes. Val drove the family car. She saw to it that the children were properly outfitted. Liam liked a shirt of madras plaid, and Val bought three of them, each a variation on the others. Mrs. Duprey wandered among the clothes for teens and found some navy blue dresses suitable for French orphans. Val bought her half a dozen.

It was a while before she resumed the Vallies. The children, talented readers all, still liked to be read aloud to at bedtime—at least the girls did, curled up on either side of Val on the wicker couch in the living room. On a footstool Liam would stare at the blackened fireplace. The children liked the unbowdlerized Brothers Grimm; they liked Robin McKinley’s fantasies, with their complicated psychologies.

Then one Wednesday night: “Tell us a story, please,” said Win. “You do tell stories; your résumé said so.”

“Well . . . mine aren’t exactly stories.”

“What, then?”

“Interactive dilemmas. Together we invent situations that require resolution. Then we invent some resolutions. Then we choose among them, or don’t.”

“Please,” said Win.

“Once upon a time,” said Val, “in a peaceful house in a peaceful village, a lodger came to the inn. He was a dark, quiet man: a woodworker. He carved beautiful spoons and ladles and spindles, and he charged fair prices. After a while he was able to buy his own cottage and build a studio next door—a big, open barnlike thing, only three sides to it. The children in the village gathered where a wall might have been, to watch him work.

“One day an official from the prince of the district stopped at the village to speak to the mayor about something financial, or maybe agricultural. On his way out of town he passed the woodworker’s cottage, slowly, for the house was pretty and the horse thought so, too. In the studio the woodworker was carving a puppet, and several children were watching. The official reined in his horse. The woodworker looked up. The men’s eyes met. The official turned his horse around and went back towards the mayor’s house at a leisurely trot.

“It turned out that the woodworker had spent time in the prince’s dungeon being punished for a crime. Not an ordinary crime, though. A crime against a child.” A figure crept close to the couch: She. “And the official’s dilemma was this: was he bound to tell the mayor that there was a person with such tendencies in their midst?

“He thought and thought. His horse drew to a halt. They both pondered.”

“He was bound to tell only if the tendencies hadn’t . . . hadn’t gone away,” said Fay.

“Such tendencies rarely go away entirely,” said Mrs. Duprey.

“The carver had done his penance,” said Win.

“What happens if the official tells the mayor?” said Fay.

“Then the dilemma flies off his shoulders onto the back of the mayor,” said Val. “Should the mayor let the woodworker’s past be known to the village?”

“The woodworker would be shunned,” said Win. “He’d leave.”

“Three walls—everyone can see what he does,” said Liam.

“Let him alone unless he builds a fourth wall,” said Win.

“Until,” corrected Mrs. Duprey.

That was that. There were no tuckings-in for this gang. The children just wandered off. Their little mother, too.

The next day, Thursday, was Val’s day off. She went to the movies with a friend. And Friday the Dupreys had one of their rare evenings of guests—another family and its children. Val cooked two meat loaves and let the kids mix the salad. Though she was invited to join the table—as she had been invited at the Chapins’, the Greens’—she declined as always. She stood at the kitchen window and looked through screens she’d installed at the transformed garden, now shades of gray under the winter moon: but she knew where the tulips she’d planted would come up, and the allium later.

Saturday night: “Please, another dilemma!” cried Fay. And Sunday, too, this time joined by Him as well as Her. He sat in a chair by the fireplace, stern as any mayor. And She on the floor beside the couch, and Liam on the footstool, and the girls next to Val, Fay stroking her arm.

They took these positions several nights a week while Val recycled the old Vallies, some of them inventions, some embellishments on real or half-real incidents. Finally she couldn’t remember any more. Well then, invent some more, embellish . . .

“There was a large town that climbed up the side of a mountain,” she began, “a bustling town, prosperous, most people happy, some miserable of course. People had big families in those      days . . .”

“They expected to lose some children,” said Mrs. Duprey.

“They practiced redundancy,” said the professor.

“One household was particularly numerous—nine offspring, assorted uncles and aunts, a grandfather. They didn’t have much money, for none of them liked to work, but they were generous with what they had. There were three cows and some hens. Usually someone remembered to feed them. Mum did the cooking for the family and Dad did the repairs on the house.

“Right in the middle of the lively crowd were twin girls, not identical. One was spirited. She had light curly hair that went its own willful way. People couldn’t seem to help loving this tousled girl. The other one, who was pretty, too, hovered between a sense of duty and a wish for fun. She was organized; the family trusted her to manage their skimpy finances. Her hair was black and reliably straight, like licorice.

“Perhaps the lighthearted girl was also scatterbrained. At any rate, when she was nineteen, she found she was with child. The child’s father had scampered. This had happened to one or two of her sisters. Such an event was accepted, was even applauded. The new child, like the others, would be everyone’s. Everyone would care for it. There would be only an increase of the family’s easy happiness . . .

“But the child was born—”

“Defective,” said Mrs. Duprey.

Val swallowed. “Yes, the infant, a girl, was born deformed and also defective, the kind of child who cries all the time and is unrewarding to care for. Her red ringlets”—Val’s hand fluttered to her own hair—“seemed like a curse. The town witches would have done away with her. The priests offered to take her to their House of Compassion on the far side of the mountain and bring her up with others of her kind. A magician wanted to transform her into an amphibian. But the family wouldn’t listen to those ideas. ‘Grace,’ they said—Grace was the poor infant’s misbegotten name—‘Grace will be brought up in our midst.She will have the best life that can be given to her,’ said the oldest and laziest sister.

“There was only one silent voice—one person whose vision of the family had been darkened by the event, who inwardly damned its members as feckless and forgetful.”

“A twin sister,” said Liam.

“Who knew she’d do all the caring,” said Win.

“She would have accepted the magician’s offer. A nice frog,” said Fay.

“Or the priests’,” said Mrs. Duprey.

“Or even the witches’. Euthanasia,” said the professor.

“But she would not have been listened to,” said his wife. “Even though she was—”

“So what should she do?” Val quickly interrupted.

“Run away,” came all five voices at once.

A few weeks later, on a rainy Sunday, Val was having a cup of tea near the movie theater, waiting to see a new Afghan film. A man dressed in clothes that had once been good sat down opposite her. His teeth, too, had deteriorated, but his smile remained charming nonetheless, and of course she recognized him.

They had recently returned to town. Val asked for news of the twins, and Deborah. Desmond asked for news of Val.

“I’m nanny in a professor’s family now,” she said. “I’m also dogsbody and housekeeper. I find I rather like it.”

“Do you live in?”

“ . . . yes.”

“I’ve thought of you off and on through the years,” said Desmond. “I remember that first day, when you reminded me of Mary Poppins. But it wasn’t Mary Poppins, really—it was the actress who played her in that movie, who played in so many movies, remember, Julie Andrews. She was once an adorable English ingenue, and she was still adorable years later. You weren’t a governess type, and neither was she. You were a party girl in disguise.”

Val said nothing to this discourteous unmasking.

“You’ve cut your hair at last and let it curl the way it wants to. More youthful . . . you’re only fifty, yes?”

“Forty-nine.” Sallie was forty-nine, too, if she hadn’t already died of self-sacrifice. And Gracie . . . Grace would be thirty. Val remembered the painful birth, the big head with its red fuzz finally emerging from between her thighs, the instant realization that this misshapen infant would not be like other children except maybe in her attachment to her mother.

Desmond said: “With that flighty coiffure I’ll bet you remind yourself of the girl you were.”

“The girl I left behind,” said Val in a low, flat voice.



Photo: iStockphoto / dontcut